Fifty years a sociologist: insight from the pandemic

Three Minute Fellow’s Introduction. Wednesday 24 November 2021
Academy of Social Sciences in Australia

I am fifty years a sociologist. The COVID-19 pandemic brought front of mind for me the reason why.

It started in April 2020. For days I watched the Ruby Princess cruise ship bobbing on the ocean off Coogee Beach near my home and painted a picture of it. Early reports from New York were that people of colour were succumbing to the disease more quickly and dramatically than richer White folks. So, race was a proxy for class and class underpinned vulnerabilities in a racially encoded society.

Ruby Princess off-shore Coogee

I wondered how the pandemic would play out in Australia, touted by our leaders as the most successful multicultural society in the world. What would the lockdown mean for our culturally diverse communities? Australia might be different. But was it?  How? Why? 

I started to look for patterns and data which might help me find the answers.

At the time, I thought that the health system had long embedded the data-needs of multicultural Australia. Apparently not. The multifarious testing regimes did not collect any ethnic data. We did not know how the virus was spreading in ethnic communities. Nor who was being tested, missing testing or the languages we would we need to get information to vulnerable people.

I wrote to Minister Hunt’s office to ask for Cultural and Linguistic Diversity (CALD) data. The response was that the data was not available. Why? Because all jurisdictions had to agree to mandate its collection, and none had asked for this in twenty years.

You get the picture.

As it turned out, the National Health and Medical Research Council COVID19 committee had advised the government in mid 2020 that CALD needs and experiences should be identified but provided no advice on how this was to be done. Why? I was told the Government did not want to hear that advice.

Around that time, I joined with a network of people advocating how critically important the information was to reduce the impact of the pandemic on multicultural communities. Getting information was like squeezing blood. It would take over a year to make significant headway. By then, there had been hundreds of deaths and thousands of hospitalisations. Hardest hit were the multicultural communities of Sydney and Melbourne.

In November 2020 the Government finally established a CALD advisory group on COVID19. This group made the collection of CALD data an imperative and by September 2021 it was taking shape.

A team of data scientists has now extracted the social and cultural data from the immunisation register and tied it to the government data network. Finally, frontline health teams have the data to identify communities with low vaccination rates and enable effective communication with those who need it.

Having seen the data, many of those who had previously denied its value have understood how critical it is to our well-being. Perhaps they have realised how much damage was done because of the data hesitancy they championed.

My learning from the Plague Year is that the infection is about biology, the plague is about social science. If you’re not counted, you don’t count. Sociology 101.